Boston’s best game still not enough to beat Thunder

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The good news: The return of Kendrick Perkins and the challenge to match up to one of NBA’s elite teams in the Oklahoma City Thunder got the Celtics to play their best game of the season.

The bad news: Oklahoma City 97, Boston 88.

Maybe the highlight for Boston fans was the video tribute to Perkins at the first time out, which was followed by a standing ovation. They really could have used a little of his fire tonight.

Boston is now 4-8 with five straight losses, the first time that has happened in the “big three” era. This season in Boston is starting to feel like so many of the Celtics games in it — they have dug themselves a hole with a slow start and now have to fight their way out of it just to make the playoffs.

It was far from perfect, but it was the best game Boston had played in total this season. Rajon Rondo nearly had a triple-double (12 points, 9 assists, 9 rebounds) and Mickael Pietrus was a gunner off the bench with 14. The Celtics defense looked the best it had this year.

But this much was clear — Oklahoma City was so much more athletic, more physical so much younger and more energetic. Rondo is the best player on the Celtics and yet at several times and when the game mattered most he could not stop Russell Westbrook. Put simply, the Thunder were better.

This game felt like so many Celtics game this year — not all of Boston’s big three seemed to click (Paul Pierce was on an finished with 24 but Ray Allen seemed to disappear) and Boston struggled at the start. Then the bench came in and couldn’t keep up the scoring pace (Marquis Daniels was the first bench player to score, more than three minutes into the second quarter) and soon it was a double-digit hole for Boston to fight back from.

They did. Pierce led a charge at the end of the first half to keep it close at the break. In the third quarter Doc Rivers experimented with a small lineup (Brandon Bass at center) and that got some fast break points. As the game wore on, Boston’s defense stiffened and they cut the lead to 78-76 with 5:10 left. Boston was forcing the Thunder to shoot jumpers.

The problem is, Kevin Durant can still knock them down. Durant had 28, and when Boston closed out on his jumpers he drove and had a dunk and created other good looks. Then in the role of third scorer usually played by James Harden, defensive specialist Thabo Sefolosha dropped 19.

But in the end it was Westbrook and friends. The Thunder had been 3-of-15 from three on the night but with the game close late they hit four straight including a couple of daggers from Westbrook, who had 26 points and broke out a new three-point celebration (holstering his gun then… doing something with his hands, I’m not sure what exactly, but it was intentional).

For Oklahoma City, this is what is expected now, their stars stepping up in the clutch to win tough games on the road.

Boston tried to rise up to meet that challenge. They came close but not close enough. It’s a long season, one where it is far too early to write off these Celtics. But until they can get the big three all going at the same time and some kind of bench help, a lot of nights are going to look like this one.

Kevin Durant gets into Twitter debate with reporter over White House comments

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Kevin Durant became the latest Warrior — joining Stephen Curry, Andre Iguodala, and Shaun Livingston, that we know of — to say he would not visit President Donald Trump’s White House as NBA champion. Which is all kind of moot because it’s unlikely the White House invites them and outspoken Trump critic/Warriors coach Steve Kerr and his players any way. (The White House’s biggest concern should be that Kerr accepts the invitation and uses that platform to challenge the president’s policies and style in front of him.)

Durant’s comments led to plenty of talk on sports talk radio and around the sports world online about whether a player or team should decline an invitation from the president. It’s not a new debate, Tom Brady denied that politics is why he didn’t visit Barack Obama’s White House (although I’m not sure many believed him), but KD’s on a big stage now so it became a talking point.

Former ESPN reporter Britt McHenry questioned a player not visiting the White House, and Durant responded, leading to a little Twitter back-and-forth.

Durant had previously Tweeted in response “by doing the opposite, I am inspiring more people” but that Tweet was deleted.

There is no one correct way to protest a person/policy/action, McHenry may see things differently, but Durant has chosen to stay away. That’s valid — traditionally these “champions to the White House” things are tedious photo ops with a few bad jokes thrown in. Having a hoops fan/player in Obama in the White House made the NBA visits more entertaining the past eight years, there was some trash talk, but still, they are largely just a public relations moment. If KD doesn’t want to play the PR game with Trump, that’s a legitimate response.

This has all been a tempest in a teapot. Until/unless the White House actually invites the Warriors to come, it’s all kind of moot.

Dwight Howard on Hornets’ coach Clifford: “It’s a great feeling when somebody believes in you”

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Dwight Howard‘s game is much better than his reputation among fans.

He’s not the Defensive Player of the Year/All-NBA/MVP candidate level player he was back in Orlando, but Howard is still one of the best rebounders in the game, he’s strong defensively, and he’s an efficient scorer inside. He’s a quality center, if he plays within himself and is used well. His perception as a guy who does not take the game seriously and held back Houston and Atlanta in recent years has validity (he plays better in pick-and-roll than on the move, but wants the ball in the post), but the idea he is trash is flat-out wrong. He’s still good.

Howard wants to change his reputation, rewrite the final chapters of his career, and told Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN that Steve Clifford’s Charlotte Hornets are the place that is going to happen.

“The other places I was, the coaches didn’t really know who I am,” Howard told ESPN. “I think that they had perception of me and ran with it. Cliff knows my game. He knows all the things that I can do. I’m very determined to get back to the top. It’s a great feeling when somebody believes in you. They aren’t just saying it; they believe it. It really just pushed me to the limit in workouts: running, training, everything. I want to do more.

“In Orlando, I was getting 13-15 shots a game. Last season, in Atlanta, it was six shot attempts. It looks like I’m not involved in the game. And if I miss a shot, it sticks out because I am not getting very many of them. But I think it’s all opportunity, the system. I haven’t had a system where I can be who I am since I was in Orlando.”

Howard averaged 8.3 field goal attempts per game in Atlanta, which is about five a game below his peak. Last season 75 percent of Howard’s shots came within three feet of the rim — is is not there to space the floor, however, he can still move fairly well off the roll and is a good passer for a big.

Last season, 28 percent of Howard’s possessions came on post ups, and he averaged a pedestrian 0.84 points per possession on those. On the 21 percent of shots he got on a cut, he averaged a very good 1.36 PPP. When he got the ball back as a roll man (again on the move), it was 1.18 PPP. The challenge long has been Howard is better on the move but doesn’t feel involved unless he gets post touches, and if he doesn’t feel involved and engaged he’s not the same player.

Maybe Clifford can make this all work with some older plays where Howard feels comfortable.

Charlotte, with Howard in the paint and on the boards, should get back to being a top 10 NBA defensive team, not the middle of the pack as they were last season. Clifford is better than that as a coach, and Howard is an upgrade in the paint (on both ends). Charlotte should be a playoff team again in the East.

But it all will come back to Howard. Fair or not. And Wojnarowski is right, this is Howard’s last best chance to write the ending he wants to his career.

Friday afternoon fun: Watch James Harden’s 10 best plays from last season

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James Harden had a historic season in Houston.

Since it’s Friday afternoon and your sports viewing options consist of watching guys about to be cut from NFL rosters try to impress, why not check out Harden’s best plays from last season. It’s worth a couple minutes of your time.

Mavericks sign Jeff Withey to one-year contract

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Jeff Withey‘s ex-fiancée accused him of domestic violence, but he was not charged.

That frees him to continue his basketball career, which he’ll do in Dallas.

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

The Mavericks could use another center, even if they re-sign Nerlens Noel. Salah Mejri is the only other true center, though Dirk Nowitzki will now play the position.

Withey is a good rim protector. Just don’t ask him to do anything away from the basket.

Dallas annually brings excess players to training camp and has them compete for regular-season roster spots. Whether or not his salary is guaranteed, Withey will likely fall into that competition.